Maybe it has to do with how complicated the world is, but for whatever reason, contemporary art -- locally, nationally and internationally -- has been getting increasingly stripped down.
Of course, there's nothing new about minimalism. Even the so-called original, the 1950s- and '60s-era New York School variant, was hardly the first attempt at simple elegance; it had many predecessors dating back to the turn of the nineteenth century. It's undeniable, though, that in the last decade or so, a raft of minimalist currents have been revived. In Denver, it's such a popular approach that there's practically a school of neo- and post-minimal painters and sculptors.
Sculptor Bryan Andrews is surely one of the most distinct among this group. What makes his work so original is that it represents a reconciliation of primitivism and minimalism -- a couple of seemingly irreconcilable things. I once wrote that his work looks like a cross between biker chainsaw wood carving and New York School abstraction, and it's still true. But now I think I'd add that it also owes a debt to the School of Paris and to hillbilly whittling.
Andrews's current show, Playing Blue Chess, at the Cordell Taylor Gallery, shows off a quartet of signature wooden stiles arranged informally in front of a pristine white wall. Andrews calls these vertical spikes "fetem," a word he coined by combining "fetish" and "totem." The designation describes the sculptures: hybrids based on totem poles and fetish objects. But Andrews is not faking tribal art; he has taken the two forms to highly abstracted and severely reduced extremes. And though they are sublimely simple, they reveal the varied sources of his inspiration.
The sculptures have a rough-hewn quality, both because they're partly made from chunks or beams of pine or Douglas fir and because they've been quickly and casually constructed (that's the biker-chainsaw component). Partially painted in monochrome, the sculptures are made up of little more than a couple of boards -- which is the New York School-minimalism aspect. On top of the sculptures are carved figures made of expensive Basswood -- which calls to mind Parisians like Brancusi and Archipenko. But then Andrews has carved his versions in a pointedly naive way. And what else would we expect from someone who hails from the Missouri Ozarks?
The four sculptures are very similar. Each has a square wooden base left in its natural state, with a vertical beam painted an exquisite cobalt-blue acrylic; on top of that is a small abstract carving which, like the base, is left natural. This carving is the only thing that distinguishes one of these fetem from another.
Intimately interrelated, the sculptures function together as a single installation. The first is "Heimdal's Horn," a reference to a figure from Norse mythology who guards the netherworld between heaven and hell. The carving vaguely conveys a figure blowing a horn but looks more like an ax head. The second is "The King of Those," a rigidly upright standing birdman. The third is "Crinkold," another birdman standing with his knees bent. The last is "The Beast," a phallic form. The first three stand together in a diagonal lineup, and they represent a warrior, a leader and a wise man. They are posed in opposition to "The Beast," the meaning of which is obvious.
Andrews says he plans to create an additional six fetem, and I can't wait to see the whole group of ten.
Andrews is also the star of Growth and Decay, at the Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art, which features "Have you seen the Heart of a Giant's leg," a piece he did last year that is among the prototypes for the fetem series. It's essentially the same kind of thing: a small carving on top of a painted beam set on end. But it's much more robust and considerably shorter. The differences between "Giant's leg" and the four fetem are just a hint at the myriad variations Andrews could create -- if he wanted to -- using this simple formula. Let's hope he does.
Interestingly, the venerable Robischon Gallery is also featuring sculpture that combines primitivism and minimalism as half of an exhibit called Vespertine. The other half is dedicated to post-minimal color-field paintings.
The first part is composed of more than a dozen utterly simple works by Seattle-based sculptor Peter Millett; while the pieces refer to mainstream minimalism, they're similar to Andrews's because they have a touch of tribal art cast in them. Living in Seattle is surely the reason Millett's sculptures resemble deconstructed totem poles. The Indians of the northwest coast are world-renowned for their magnificent carved and polychromed totems. But because Millett only uses the totemic shape for two pieces, the reference to American Indian art is subtle and unself-conscious, as are the minimalist elements.
Although these works are not dated, I have a feeling the geometric, architectonic ones are older than the organic, curvilinear ones.
Among those that fall into the former category is "Saffron Window," done in carved and painted fir. It's a wall-hung parallelogram that could be a window. Despite the straightforward shape, the literal reference to a window and the fact that it's only seven inches deep, there's a lot going on in this piece in terms of the rhythm of solids and voids. And the painted yellow surface, with its waxed matte finish, is sumptuous; it almost looks as though the artist stained it.
Most of the pieces fall into the organic category, however. One example is "Blue Log," which is simply a fragment of a cedar log hung on the wall. It's been stripped of its bark and shaped economically with two different diagonal cuts, then painted blue and waxed. The resulting color is perfect when combined with the disarming shape of the sculpture. Other work of this type includes "Green Shift," an assemblage of several log fragments, and "Pole Post," also finished in that incredible blue. More than most of the other sculptures, "Pole Post" comes closest to replicating a traditional totem pole. The circular forms of the stacked logs could be standing in for the stacked faces seen on totems.
Millett has also done a couple of sculptures made of assembled steel pipe. The cut pipe is used in exactly the same way as the logs, and in this sense, "Steel Torso" is essentially the same idea as "Pole Post." But in changing materials, an essential aesthetic and formal element also changes: The steel pipes are hollow while the logs are solid.
The second part of Vespertine features new paintings by Tony Coulter, an emerging Denver artist who's sure to be well known around here by the time the show closes next month.
Coulter was born in Korea to an American serviceman father and a Korean mother. In 1977, at the age of ten, he came with his family to the Denver area. With the exception of his college years -- he studied painting and sculpture at Bennington College in Vermont, graduating in 1989 -- he's lived here ever since. Though he's continued to work on his art, he's rarely exhibited it, and he's kept a very low profile.
The show at Robischon is only his third; the other two were at Pirate. Gallery director Jim Robischon initially took note of Coulter in 2000, when he went to see one of those solos. Robischon's interest was piqued by the handsome invitation Coulter sent him. Going directly from Pirate to a top commercial gallery is something that used to happen all the time, but is now downright rare, if not entirely non-existent. For Robischon, it's been twenty years since such a thing has happened. For this reason, Coulter is playing the title role in a Cinderella (Cinderfella?) story, as no one can deny that getting picked up by Robischon is the Denver art world's equivalent of going to the ball.
After seeing the show, it's no mystery why Robischon stuck his neck out for Coulter: The paintings are accomplished and stunningly beautiful. All are essentially the same, save for their color.
Coulter paints monochromatic paintings, but they are not strictly monochromes. In "Evening Song," which, like all the paintings here, is an oil on linen, Coulter uses ready-made and custom-made squeegees to smear the thick paint across the canvas both horizontally and vertically. The edges of the painting are encrusted with the paint that was left after the squeegee passed by. It is one of several paintings that are chiefly red with dark-blackish underpainting that shows through the surface here and there. The surfaces themselves are varnished, leaving them glossy and wet-looking.
Among his influences, Coulter lists some obvious ones, including Gerhard Richter, and some unlikely ones, such as Clyfford Still. The relationship of Coulter's art to that of Mexican artist Ricardo Mazal, whose work has been widely exhibited in the area, is clear, and it's something Coulter acknowledges.
It would not be an understatement to say that Coulter is arriving on the scene as a full-blown star. (But I guess that's just an inevitable perk of a Robischon show.) Then again, he can only be considered an overnight sensation if we forget that he has more than ten years' worth of work under his belt -- even if most of us have never seen it.
No one would call Denver Post columnist Joanne Ditmer a newcomer: She's written about art, architecture and historic preservation (among a host of other topics, notably the environment) for four decades. But all good things come to an end, and this Sunday's piece by Ditmer will be her last weekly column in the Post.
I have a special regard for Ditmer, because I'm interested in the history of Colorado art and architecture. It's amazing how many times during a research project that the information trail would ultimately lead back to a Ditmer piece in a clippings file or on microfilm at the library. The oldest Ditmer story I have in my files is a photocopy of a 1964 profile of a house by Hobart Wagener, one of the state's most important architects of the time. The Wagener piece was done as part of Ditmer's "Raising the Roof" column, in which she profiled more than 1,500 different residences over the years.
Ditmer wrote about architects like Wagener -- and other modernists, including Victor Hornbein and Thomas Moore -- as well as artists like Vance Kirkland and Herbert Bayer. Though she wrote less about art in recent years, she kept up with the subject and discussed young contemporary artists such as Bryan Andrews, whose current show is reviewed above.
She also made a tremendous civic contribution. It would be impossible to overstate the boost she gave to Historic Denver, the key player in local preservation. Without her, the Molly Brown House would probably be a parking lot now, as would all of LoDo.
Ditmer will become what might be called a journalist emeritus, with pieces appearing once a month. Although the Post claims to be looking for a bunch of replacements for its senior writers, Ditmer's shoes will be hard to fill.
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